Living and working with Autism

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“Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. … But autism … is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an over-expression of the very traits that make our species unique,”

Paul Collins, Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism

A few weeks ago, I received a text message from my husband Mark, who insisted that we watch a programme on the telly that evening. He rarely does this so when I asked him about the programme and why he wanted to watch it, all he had to tell me was the title and I instantly understood why; the programme was Chris Packham: Asperger’s and me.

Chris Packham is not the only celebrity that has recently opened about his life with Autism; music pioneer Gary Numan has also spoken about how he has effectively managed his condition throughout his life and the impact it has upon his work. The programme was on BBC and originally aired on 17th October and I would highly recommend anyone watching it.

The National Autistic Society describes autism as ‘a lifelong developmental disability’. However, some autistic people find this definition quite negative. A more neutral and descriptive definition might be: Autistic Spectrum Conditions are neurological developmental conditions. They occur when atypical (unusual) brain connections lead to atypical development. These differences in the way the brain functions lead to particular challenges and abilities and unusual development.

I considered how Autism is catered for in the workplace and of course, and as we all know, it falls under the topic of Equality and Diversity and is legally covered by the Equality Act 2010. Equality and Diversity has been perceived by organisations as a top priority for years, but recently it seems to be to be even more prominent. Having a diverse workforce isn’t required because it is what all the cool kids are doing; ethically it is the right thing to do; but for those organisations that dare to overcome the preconceptions associated with Autism; they can gain some incredibly gifted employees.

As the wife of someone with Asperger Syndrome, I have seen the conflict that can be caused between Autism and the working environment. I think it is increasingly important for employers to fully understand and support those working with Autism, not just from a legal perspective, but also from a welfare point of view.

In the UK there are 700,000 people are living with autism spectrum disorder, yet despite the desire for a truly diverse workforce, autism remains a disability which is significantly under represented, with only 14% actively working.

As Mark and I watched Chris explain his life living with Asperger Syndrome, it became apparent that there were similarities between their experiences, yet despite having the same label; they simply couldn’t be further apart, which only highlights the broad nature of the spectrum. I was actually surprised by seeing it, I think it was more seeing it from a different perspective that really struck a chord with me. Autism affects different people in different ways and you may have heard references such as Asperger syndrome, high functioning autism, low functioning autism or classic autism, all are part of the autistic spectrum. In some respects, these terms can be unhelpful, for example, a person labelled ‘low-functioning autistic’ may find that their skills and abilities are overlooked; while a person labelled ‘high-functioning autistic’ may find that their needs are overlooked. It is important that each person with autism is recognised and treated as an individual.

“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,”            Dr. Stephen Shore

As the programme continued, I considered the impact that Autism had on people at work. It is impossible to plan, design or prepare the workplace to cater for people with Autism because there is no such thing as a typical Autistic person. Chris visited a number of technology giants in Silicon Valley, California with Steve Silberman, an award winning writer, explains to Chris that Silicon Valley simply wouldn’t exist in it’s current state without the valuable skills of those with Autism.

They visited the offices of tech giant Microsoft, and they had successfully adapted their on boarding process to suit the needs of candidates with Autism, they actively embrace the condition and consider it to be a gift; as they are able to see the world differently, they are highly innovate, seek solutions to critical problems and contribute effectively.

One particular point of interest to me was how Microsoft actively sought and recruited Autistic candidates; instead of having a pressurised recruitment process, they provide candidates with a week long interview to enable the candidates to show case their skills and talents. They highlighted the importance that the individuals skills are highly valuable and said that their social preferences should not have to be adapted to the needs of others in order to progress. They even asked each employee if they wanted to sit in an open plan office or to have a closed office of their own.

Thinking as an HR professional,  we are almost obsessed by the desire for consistency with processes and procedures. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is also incredibly inflexible and which is simply impossible if you are to achieve a truly diverse workforce. There is no one size fits all, so isn’t it time we stopped labelling people and started truly working on increasing our diversity strategies to include those with Autism?

As highlighted by the experience at Microsoft, a key focus area is the approach to recruitment; traditional methods tend to be rigid, therefore, more consideration needs to be given to the process to ensure inclusion, it is essential to consider the differing needs of the candidates and often it is the little things that can mean a big difference as seen with Microsoft. Organisations that fail to see the potential that people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders can bring, are really missing out on talented employees who have a lot to offer. Stop focusing on what they cannot do but rather what they can do, all it takes is time, patience and understanding.

We need to stop wasting time labelling and take more time in understanding Autistic people; their unique gifts should be embraced and we certainly should not try to change them.

As the programme came to a close, Chris was asked “if there was a cure for Autism, would you take it?” he simply turned and said “no, it is a part of who I am”. Given the incredible achievements and discoveries made by those with Autism, the world would not be as it is now without Autism; recognising and creating cultures of inclusions is just the starting point, there is still so much more that we can do.

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